Football is something that has always been in Gema Simon’s blood.
Anyone who has seen Simon for the Newcastle Jets will be accustomed to her energy and marauding runs from left back, and Tigers fans can look forward to more of the same from the W-League veteran in the NPL this year when the competition returns.
“I’ve played in teams that have been quite successful and teams that haven’t been as successful and my work rate never changes.
“I’m always going to work hard regardless if the team is strong or not”.
Simon has what it takes to be a leader in this Tigers side, having co-captained the Newcastle Jets for eight years out of her eleven-year stint at the W-League club.
“I think there are different types of leaders – for me, I’m not someone who is going to be loud and yelling at everyone, I’m someone who prefers to lead by example and to do the right things.
“If I’m going to be yelling at someone, I want it to be constructive so that they can be better next time”.
First impressions of NPL NSW
With COVID-19 bringing football and wider society to a standstill, the Tigers’ NPL side were only able to play out one game this season; a Grand Final rematch with Sydney University which ended in a 2-2 draw.
The intensity and desire to play has not been lost on Simon, who has been adjusting to the differences between the W-League and NPL.
“With the W-League, because I’ve played for a long time, I know everyone and so I know what they like to do on the field.
“Whereas in the NPL you’re trying to figure it out as you go and players who haven’t played in the W-League with or against me are harder to mark because they’re unpredictable. It keeps you excited and on your toes.
“I was tossing up between staying (in Australia) and going overseas, but the quality of the NSW NPL being as it is I thought it would be better for me”.
On top of a desire to be a part of the ambitious direction of the Northern Tigers football club, Simon touched on the influence of some familiar names to the Tigers family who were instrumental in getting her to the club.
“I spoke to Claire Coelho, who was annoying me at training all the time about joining the Tigers, and then Loz (Lauren Allan) went to the club as well. I spoke to the club and messaged Servet (Uzunlar) and they said some really good things.
“It seemed like they were pretty together as a team and to have kept the majority of the squad together they’ve got to be doing something right at the club because that’s massive. Even speaking to people who played against the club they said nothing but good things. There are quality players and most importantly good people at the club.
“In my first week of training I felt really comfortable, the girls were really welcoming. Coming down from Newcastle, it makes it easier to have Claire and Loz to road trip with. I actually miss the season already.”
And in spite of regular football being out of the equation with the season suspended, it is business as usual for Simon off the park.
“I’m fortunate enough to have an at home gym and to live near a footy field, so it’s pretty much running every second day and gym most days.
“Not a lot has really changed for me, it’s just there is no training. It’s what I would do for a pre-season anyway.”
Football travels & Matildas moments
Outside of her time Australia, Simon has experienced a unique career travelling the world to take up football opportunities with Canada’s Ottawa Fury in the now defunct USL W-League, Suwon UDC WFC in Korea’s WK League and Avaldsnes IL in the Norwegian Toppserien league.
“I think in Norway they’re a bit more physical but they play a similar style of football to us. They played more directly though at the time when I was there. But then you compare that to Korea, where they were very different. They were all about moving the ball and precise second movements.”
“A lot of my game improved over in Korea and as I’m not tall for a defender it was kind of nice to be bigger. I’ve had different experiences in different countries and played all sorts of different football, and it’s nice to see that your body can adapt to anything.”
With 11 caps for the Matildas, Simon has been up close and personal with the squad that has captured the hearts and minds of Australians everywhere, inspiring a whole generation of up-and-coming talented young footballers in the process.
“You work your entire career to get to something like that and I guess I was fortunate enough to be able say that I’ve been to a World Cup and watch some of the best players in the world. It was nice to go through that with friends and you spend so much time with them that you get comfortable and close with your teammates, that was enjoyable as well.”
And in a tournament that consistently delivers on surprise and spectacle, it was the feeling ahead of the Matildas’ opening game of the World Cup that sticks out most fondly in her memory.
“My greatest memory of last year’s tournament was the first game at the World Cup and the realisation of “this is actually happening”. It’s kind of relieving at the same time to have actually been able to achieve something that I wanted since I was a kid. I was pretty fortunate to be able to say I could do that”.
And whilst Simon will never forget the memory of ecstatic fans in France, starting the 2018 game against Chile in her home ground in Newcastle will be forever treasured.
“I got to play at home in front of all of my friends and family and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Looking to the future
At 29, Simon still has a few years left in football. As for what follows after she hangs up her boots, Simon looks to home.
“I want to work with the Indigenous community, being Indigenous myself I want to be able to give back and to learn a lot more about my family and my culture.
“I want to be able to give kids coming through information that I never had that would help them achieve their goals, whether its sport, or music, or theatre or whatever.
“That’s what I would like to do after football, which may not be too far away. I might have to extend finishing my career after this break we’re having now”.
In terms of advice she can give to younger footballers looking to break into the professional game, Simon is well-versed in the need to prioritise your body and to simply enjoy your football.
“In terms of the football side of stuff, look after your body and do all the little things right. If you do all the little things right hopefully you get a bit of luck but if things don’t go your way it’s important to be patient. That’s what I’ve learnt as I’ve had a few setbacks and injuries in my career, after my first surgery I was probably a little impatient.”
“Listen to your body and enjoy it. Do what makes you happy and if you get to earn a little bit then that’s a bonus, but as a female footballer that’s not why you play the game. If there’s something you’re not good at or want to be better at then it’s important to work at it.”
When asked about where she sees women’s football in Australia being in the next 10 years, Simon was confident in the game’s capacity to capitalise on the current explosion of interest in the sport.
“Hopefully sometime in the future, and it may take a while, the women will be on par with the men. I hope it gets to a point where women can do football full time.
“The gap between girls playing in the W-League and making the step up to the Matildas will get bigger when they are having to commit elsewhere to full or part time jobs – hopefully in the future female footballers will be able to just play football.”
“But it definitely has come leaps and bounds in the last couple of years, especially with the Matildas doing well and the amount of high-profile Australian players around the world. And the support Australia has given to the Matildas as well, by getting behind them and bringing bigger crowds to games has helped the game grow.”
Written by Matthew Badrov. Photos thanks to NPL New South Wales and AAP.